Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale Passivity

By Margaret Atwood

Passivity

Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak unless they asked you a direct question. Try to think of it from their point of view she said, her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile. It isn't easy for them. (3.18)

The attempted indoctrination of the Handmaids is so complete that they're forced not only to give up all of their own rights but encouraged to feel pity for the people abusing those rights. That's passivity in the extreme; Aunt Lydia is encouraging them to be doormats.

Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. (10.24-25)

This quote implies an active passivity, if that makes sense. The narrator and other characters in her position have to "work at" being passive, or at "ignoring" their situations. They have to deliberately refuse to rebel.

I lie, lapped by the water, beside an open drawer that does not exist, and think about a girl who did not die when she was five; who still does exist, I hope, though not for me. Do I exist for her? Am I a picture somewhere, in the dark at the back of her mind? (12.13)

The narrator's mental passivity is echoed by her physical passivity here as she "lie[s], lapped by the water" in her bath. Her mind wanders even though her body cannot.

These pictures [of nineteenth-century harems] were supposed to be erotic, and I thought they were, at the time; but I see now what they were really about. They were paintings about suspended animation; about waiting, about objects not in use. They were paintings about boredom.

But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men. (13.1-2)

The narrator is in a state of "suspended animation," just like the women in the paintings. If they were "about objects not in use," she too is an object, and not only is she not being used, she's being kept from using the very parts of herself that made her a person rather than an object.

I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (16.7)

The narrator is describing a sex scene for which three people are present but "only one is involved." In fact, she has no choice but to use a vulgar word to describe the sex taking place because all other descriptors include an element that isn't present here.

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing. (23.4)

Here the narrator separates the issues of forgiveness and control, digressing about whether the real question in all of this is who can command forgiveness while participating in the terrible things society has endorsed. Of course, it is mostly academic for her, as she has very little power herself.

To him I'm no longer merely a usable body. To him I'm not just a boat with no cargo, a chalice with no wine in it, an oven—to be crude—minus the bun. To him I am not merely empty. (27.23)

The narrator's base level of self-respect has really sunk in this demeaning position. Since everyone views her as "merely empty," when a man sees her as anything more, she can't help feeling something for him—even if the way he sees her brings another host of problems.

"It's a risk," I say. 'More than that." It's my life on the line; but that's where it will be sooner or later, one way or another, whether I do or don't. We both know this. (31.69)

The narrator is in danger no matter what she does. Even if she's passive, "sooner or later" push will come to shove and she'll find her life in jeopardy. So this is an argument for acting, to some extent, rather than being completely passive. Sure, it's more dangerous, but danger is always relative.

She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something—what?—that used to be so central to her? And how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not? (38.62)

One of the things that scares the narrator most is the change in Moira. Once rebellious, she now seems passive, speaking with "indifference" and "a lack of volition." This whole time, it seems, the narrator has been able not to act because she believed in Moira's potential for action.

I want to turn, run to him, throw my arms around him. This would be foolish. There is nothing he can do to help. He too would drown.

I walk to the back door, into the kitchen, set down my basket, go upstairs. I am orderly and calm. (44.19-20)

No matter how much the narrator might want to flee when the Eyes come for her, to do so would condemn Nick as well as herself. He would not be able to help her; she would only pull him down with her. To cope, she does what she always does: retreats into a passive space and zones out.

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